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Impactful corporate storytelling demands singular stories, not schizophrenia

Remember when you were a kid? Something had gone wrong. You were involved, and someone was going to be angry. A teacher, a parent or a sibling. But you weren’t seen, and to minimise repercussions you crafted a version of the truth that had an air of plausibility to it that would also get you off the hook. Perhaps a boisterous but mute pet could take the rap. The problem was – particularly for the still-developing teenage prefrontal cortex – remembering the elements you’d embroidered. Let alone to whom you’d told what.

Growing up and learning to interact with different groups – friends, family, authority figures – is a positive learning experience if you’re going to be able to swap between modes and registers in later life. Those tweens and teens who learn to apply context in different environments go on to thrive. Knowing not to swear in class or to the police, becoming a bit more estuary in the playground or on the terraces, and upping the deference before grandparents are important skills for the trainee social chameleon. But it’s ever so funny when these emerging skills lapse in the heat of the moment.

I’ve no idea what it’s like to have an affair. Coming from a serial broken home, I’ve always prized fidelity and stability highly. I also happen to have found The One at just 20 – lucky old me – and have combined being not-the-straying-kind with a strong and happy partnership. But I’m not immune to popular culture, and I’ve seen my fair share of characters in film, TV series and books come a cropper by failing to control singular sexual narratives.

Holding multiple versions of the same story in your consciousness and constantly having to switch between them can be exhausting; stressful to the storyteller and confusing to the audience. As for individuals, so for corporations and brands. And all the more so because the folk memory and representation of an abstract entity like a brand is held in the collective minds and mouths of dozens to thousands of individuals.

In a pre-social media world, companies could and often did tell different stories to different audiences with impunity.

  • One story for their supply chain, whom they wanted to see them as partners: “Through our long-term commitment to you, we can help your company grow with ours.” (Or maybe: “We’ll parasite on your innovation until it becomes synonymous with us not you. And then we’ll cut your margin until it’s no longer viable for you to supply us.”)
  • One story for their shareholders and investors, whom they wanted to reassure they were running the business keenly: “We’ve removed all unnecessary costs from the supply chain and now produce our products more cheaply than the competition.” (Or possibly: “We screw our suppliers to the floor to maximise margin.”)
  • One story for their customers, whom they wanted to woo and bewitch: “We make the best products – bar none.” (Or perhaps “We’re brilliant at accentuating the positive.”)
  • One story for regulators and legislators: “We’re the greenest business in this sector.” (Or read: “We stick to the letter but not the spirit of the law and pollute as little as possible.”)
  •  And one story for employees: “With our company on your CV, you’ll have the pick of the market for your next role.” (Code for: “You should be grateful to work here, and accept the fact that we’re not going to give you a raise, even in line with inflation.”)

I’ll admit that the alternative readings (in brackets) are cynical, and historically the different narrative strands may all have been well-meaning from each of the different parts of a business. But very often the CSR story was 180 degrees from the key messages for city analysts. And a tale told to assuage environmentalists and local government would lead shareholders seriously to consider shuffling their investment portfolios.

The problem was – and amazingly still is in a surprisingly large number of organisations – that communication wasn’t joined up. The era of brand monologue was linear, siloed and separate. When it wasn’t easy to collect and collate different strands of brand communication through platforms and search engines, different strokes for different folks didn’t matter. No-one could discover the contradictions inherent in such a system.

Now we live in an always-on social world, it’s never been more straightforward to smoke out, document and publicise corporate double-think. Just as Greenpeace does with its IDEAL strategy on issues from palm oil to motor oil – Identify, Document, Expose, Act and Lobby. Moreover, digital technology and social platforms have democratised citizen journalism to make many more voices matter. The spark for a now-notorious BBC Panorama about the poor conditions in developing economy sweatshops used at the time by Primark, for example, originated from a gap-year student with a smartphone.

And it’s important to speak with one voice not just because parts of your business may be up to no good from a social, environmental or economic point of view. Corporate multiple personality disorder is just plain confusing and unnecessary. If brands are honest with themselves, there are relatively few dominant characteristics that genuinely separate them from their competitors – maybe just three. The process of discovery and definition of these themes is an important exercise, for start-ups just as much as corporations celebrating their fortieth birthday.

A clear, simple and elegant expression of what you stand for and why this makes you different (not better; a nice distinction) is empowering and liberating for everyone within an organisation with a communications role. In today’s hyper-connected world, that means almost everyone, whether their focus is internal or external communications (a false dichotomy), customer service, supply chain, HR, IR or PR. It provides freedom within a framework that paradoxically gives the right brand language permission to thrive.

Codifying brand language isn’t about making everyone say the same thing to any and all stakeholders, turning all employees into emotionless Stepford wives and husbands.

The core of a corporate story must be simple, clear and consistent. With solid and uniform foundations – the brand’s essential Leitmotifs – R&D can add technical reasons to believe to their storytelling, consumer marketing can hang with the kids, and corporate finance can dial up its EBITDA. Just consider Unilever CEO Paul Polman’s 2020 vision of doubling turnover while halving the company’s environmental footprint; corporate growth and enhanced financial performance, with CSR baked-in at source, not grated on as an afterthought.

As we’re now all corporate and brand storytellers, we would do well to remember how we built our own personal brand narrative and made it fit for purpose in the different contexts we inhabit, the roles we play. Whether we’re a parent, a child, an employee, a lover, a boss, or a tourist. Clear and consistent content may be king, but context is very definitely queen.

This blog first appeared as a guest blog for IABC UK, linked here. Thanks for the good folks of IABC for the opportunity.

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.

Sam has recently written a book called “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data”. It will be published in April 2018 by Routledge.